Map of discontent

On November 24, there appeared the disturbing news that China had started a fresh row by including in its e-passports a map showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as parts of Chinese territory. In its calibrated response to the provocation, India stamped its visas on Chinese passports together with an outline of the Indian map. At the same time, the embassy in Beijing quietly made a demarche to the Chinese government.

By a strange coincidence, the news of the map row in this country's newspapers was accompanied by a statement from the army chief, General Bikram Singh, to the effect that relations with China were "absolutely perfect". Not only was this appraisal contrary to the ground reality but it also raised a troubling question. While it is the right, indeed, the duty of the service chiefs to candidly discuss with the government their assessment of the challenges, or the lack thereof, to national security, shouldn't they leave public pronouncements on the state of ties with other powers to political leaders?

There was another headline in the newspapers that proclaimed: "India looks to China to put high-speed trains on track". This was one of the proposals on the agenda of the bilateral Strategic Economic Dialogue in Delhi. As expected, both sides expressed satisfaction with their "joint strategy" for development and cooperation. Isn't this a permanent feature of the complex of India-China relations? Even when China asserts its claims on Arunachal Pradesh aggressively, economic relations between the two countries flourish. China is already India's largest trading partner, and the Delhi meeting reaffirmed the resolve to increase this trade from $74 billion to $100 billion in five years.

Both Indian and Chinese governments seem to have decided to play down the maps row. The national security advisor (NSA), Shivshankar Menon, was the first to do so, presumably because he was due to leave for Beijing for just one more meeting with his opposite number, state councillor Dai Bingguo, who as China's special representative for the border talks with India, has already had 15 rounds of negotiations with three successive Indian counterparts, and is now due to retire in March. Some of the NSA's remarks implied that his last-ditch conversation with Dai might pave the way for a settlement of the vexed border issue and have drawn flak.

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